Three portraits of dogs surrounded by hearts with one holding a tennis shoe.

Can a Hound Help You Through Cancer?

Filling a dog-shaped hole in my life

An old friend of mine, who I met many years ago when we both worked at ABC News, is now a senior spokesperson at the United Nations in New York. I recently saw a picture of him with the UN therapy dog.

In the hallowed halls of the UN, Chloe is famous and has her own Facebook page, and people love it when she goes visiting at their offices. As my friend says with Chloe, there’s no physical distancing required! Chloe is an English bulldog and joined the team in 2017 to much acclaim.

All of which got me thinking about my own rescue dog called Rusty. I rescued her from the local dog pound, and then she repaid the favor and rescued me. Rusty, also known as Bucket, came into our lives in October 2017. A month later I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Good timing Bucket.

Getting Rusty

For years our daughter had been pestering us for a dog, but I’d always said no as city center living didn’t seem right for a pooch. On our holidays that summer I finally weakened, largely because when growing up my parents always had dogs and I’d loved them, particularly a small brown dog called Jenny who was my mother’s favorite. I couldn’t see any reason why that pleasure should be denied to my daughter.

On return from the vacation, we went to the rescue center and asked if they had a small street dog fit for a capital city. We saw three, the first of which was Rusty, who jumped straight on to my wife’s lap and demanded to be pet.

Despite reservations about taking the first dog we saw, Rusty came home. Walking schedules were drawn up, and we set about becoming a four-piece family with Rusty filling a dog-shaped hole in our lives.

Then in November I was told I had prostate cancer.

Seeking support after a cancer diagnosis

Recently, I was reading through some old New Yorker magazines and came across a piece by Sarah Miller called "Bridge Dog", and she says much better than I can what it feels like to bring a dog into your world.

When you’re hit with a cancer diagnosis, you can use all the love and support you can get, and my human family provides that. But dogs have a different role to play, and Rusty seems to offer bottomless amounts of unconditional love.

Just by ruffling her fur, she seems to reduce stress, improve my mood, and is the great distractor-in-chief. One study looked at how pets are four-legged health improvers and concluded that "people with pets had significantly lower heart rate and blood pressure levels."1

The exercise benefits

Of course, I understand that dogs won’t work for everyone. Some may be allergic to them, have no access to a garden, or just don’t crave animal comfort.

When I was first diagnosed, a doctor friend said if there was a pill she wished she could prescribe for cancer patients, it would be one marked 'exercise.' Keeping fit, staying trim and healthy won’t cure cancer, but it certainly can help.

Hormone therapy seems to give me raging hunger. The treatment finished almost nine months ago, as of this writing, but I could still eat all the time. Once again Rusty helps. No matter how sorry you’re feeling for yourself, she needs exercising and will demand to be taken for a walk.

Many scientists, and not just my doctor friend, believe that exercise is a powerful medicine and can contribute to improved rates of successful recovery.2

An immeasurably positive effect

My only concern with Rusty is that in November this year she will be ten years old, and is starting to slow down. If Rusty went before me, that would be tough as these tykes get into our hearts. But she is a small terrier of uncertain breed, and the little guys can go on for a long time, so I try not to worry.

Rusty has had an immeasurably positive effect on our family. She is sleeping in a patch of sun at my feet as I write this. She is making little woofling sounds.

So why not tell me some of your doggy tails (sorry)? How has your hound helped guide you through the cancer quicksand?

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